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Is social media useful in negotiations?

By January 3, 2013


I often try to persuade lawyers and business professionals that social media is useful. I downplay the fact that social media is mostly used for random daily life observations; I emphasize that it’s a great research tool for investigative purposes.

Turns out, the trivial discussions can be helpful in negotiations. And this is a scientifically proven principle.

First, let’s review Twitter. Watch this excellent explanation of Twitter in Plain English by Lee Lefever of CommonCraft. He emphasizes the part that I’ve long downplayed—namely, that Twitter is a way to learn more about the people you know.

In the 2 minute video we are told that Carla didn’t know, until she started using Twitter, that her friend Steve in Seattle was a baseball fan. She didn’t know that Julia in London was reading a new investment book. And, until she started posting to Twitter, most of her friends didn’t know she had developed a passion for the music of Van Halen.

So what in the hell does this have to do with negotiation? The specifics of what Carla, Steve and Julia like has nothing to do with negotiation. But what if Carla and Steve didn’t know each other? And what if they were able to uncover a little about each other via social media tools like LinkedIn or Twitter?

How might that influence their email negotiation if they had to hammer out a deal? According to the principles of persuasion identified by Robert Cialdini, it might lower the chances of a deadlock from 30% to 6%. Cialdini is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. He is also the author of the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a best-selling book that scientifically identified core principles of persuasion.

I recently had the chance to listen to him on a podcast with Dan Pink (author of To Sell is Human). In the podcast he cited a study that showed the importance of making small talk before engaging in a negotiation. Westerns tend to think this is unnecessary and inefficient (I would have been one of them). In fact, small talk not only helps build rapport, but also helps the participants identify similarities and common interests.

The study showed that email negotiations resulted in only 6% deadlocked situations when small talk and trivial information exchange happened first. That’s down from 30% without the trivial preliminaries.

The study didn’t involve social media. But obviously social media helps you understand (via seemingly unimportant trivia) what other people are interested in. And, if Cialdini is right (and he’s got data to back up his claims, so odds are he is) then it’s easy to see how social media can help fuel the kind of preliminary discussion that, in turn, leads to successful negotiations.

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